Native American Country in Arizona

roadtrip_app_arizona_budgetentrance, beginning, canyon, de chelly
— Paul Moore / Dreamstime.com

The entrance or beginning of the Canyon De Chelly

The drive up to Walpi, on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, takes only a few minutes. But you will remember it for a lifetime.

The drive up to the mesa-top village of Walpi, on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, takes only a few minutes. But you will remember it for a lifetime. From high-desert flatlands, the rough, narrow road suddenly leaps up the side of a sheer cliff in a couple of twisting jumps, barely clinging to a precipitous drop-off. In centuries past, the Hopis climbed to Walpi's lofty perch on perilous trails to escape their enemies. Today's road, open to visitors, seems only slightly less daunting.

A visit to ancient Walpi, which hugs the mesa's rocky tip an awesome 600 feet above the countryside, is just one of many adventures awaiting you on a five-day, 800-mile drive-budget-priced, of course-into Arizona's scenic Indian Country, touring both the Hopi and surrounding Navajo reservations. If you've got another day or two, the nearby Apache tribes also invite visitors.

A most affordable adventure

Look forward to enjoying plenty of exciting Old West-style fun. But perhaps more important, the trip rewards with an up-close look at the culture and lives of these intriguing peoples, struggling to retain their historic identities in a beautiful but harsh land. If you're lucky, you might catch a ceremonial dance, fair, or rodeo. This educational aspect-a look at Indian culture beyond the cliches fostered by all those Westerns-adds considerable value to the modest prices you'll find in these areas for food and lodging.

In a way, entering Navajo and Hopi territories is like visiting a foreign country-make that two foreign countries. They do things differently, and they speak unique languages among themselves. But these are less-distant lands, easily reached by car or a cheap flight to Phoenix. Unlike Europe, they are inexpensive. In summer high season, a room for two people in a quality motel-either on or off the reservations-costs only $60 to $100 a night, often with breakfast included. The price drops to as low as $30 a night if you'll accept a shared bathroom.

Everywhere I went, good family restaurants featured full dinners that began at less than $10 per person. I got hooked on Navajo tacos-a huge, plate-size hunk of Indian fry bread liberally topped with ground beef, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, onions, melted cheese, and an optional hot pepper sauce. For about $7, a single serving set in front of me looked like a mini-mountain. Delicious as it was, the hearty dish proved more than I could eat. Just as I would abroad, I sampled all the local foods, which usually proved the cheapest.

What I liked best was the chance to meet Navajos and Hopis in their villages. Many are rather shy about talking to tourists. It's just not their way. But you can usually engage in conversation with a potter, wood-carver, or basket-maker, many of whom market their art from their doorsteps. Even if you don't buy-although you will find some terrific bargains-it's interesting to watch them at work. My wife, who collects the colorful, hand-carved kachina (or katsina) dolls of the Hopis, especially enjoys hearing the carvers explain why they chose a particular design.

Along the way, you will visit (as we recently did) massive Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay"), once a secret labyrinthine refuge for the Navajos, and the equally spectacular Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the red-rock realm where Hollywood director John Ford filmed such Western classics as 1938's Stagecoach, starring John Wayne. The cliff-hanging stone pueblos of the Hopis, such as Walpi, are among the oldest continually inhabited residences in North America. But don't be tempted to snap a photo; the Hopis ban the use of cameras.

As you drive, keep an eye out also for Navajo hogans, the traditional six- or eight-sided shelters that many still use. Some are built in the old style with log walls and earthen roofs; others make use of plywood and other modern materials. And stay alert as well for livestock on the road-the Navajos maintain an open range. Cattle, ponies, sheep, and goats roam free without fences. I had to brake quickly one day for a large flock of sheep meandering down an otherwise empty road. They were only shepherded-as far as we could tell-by a small dog.

Totaling more than 18 million acres (larger than many states), the Navajo and Hopi reservations occupy an often stark, desertlike landscape, yet one that is surprisingly beautiful in its wide-open emptiness. Almost anywhere you look, odd rock formations thrust skyward, teasing the eye. Lofty mesas give way to deep gorges painted in hues of red and yellow. Pygmy forests of juniper and pi-on, a source of edible nuts for the region's early inhabitants, add splashes of green. I reveled, too, in summer's mild, dry climate. At elevations ranging from 4,000 to 7,500 feet, the area turns chilly enough at night for a sweater.

Getting started

The logical starting point is Phoenix, served by such discount airlines as Southwest (800/435-9792, southwest.com) and ATA (800/435-9282, ata.com). Although summer is the high season for lodging in northeast Arizona, it's low season in Phoenix because of frequent 100-plus-degree days. You can find a good motel room for no more than $50 near the airport, if needed before or after the drive. Better yet, car rental rates in the desert tend to be a bargain. For a one-week rental in mid-August, Alamo (800/462-5266, alamo.com) quoted the lowest price, $141 for a compact car with unlimited mileage. Next lowest was Enterprise (800/736-8222, enterprise.com) at $144.

The lodging rates listed below represent the total cost per night for two people traveling during the peak summer period.

Day one

Plan to land in Phoenix by early afternoon. This gives you plenty of time to complete the pleasant 190-mile drive northeast via State Routes 87, 260, and 377 to Holbrook, a modest but interesting former frontier town on the southern edge of the Navajo Reservation. Less than an hour from the airport, you climb through a forest of stately saguaro cactus into high, cool mountains, fragrant with the scent of pine.

Located just off I-40 along Historic U.S. 66, Holbrook and neighboring Winslow offer the cheapest lodging prices on this drive. I scouted out several motels I could recommend, charging about $50 to $60 a night. But another half dozen or more, in desperate need of refurbishing, advertised single rates as low as $20 a night. It's up to you. In midsummer, they all had vacancy signs lit. To really save, consider making either town your headquarters, visiting the sites on this itinerary as a series of day trips. The two towns are just north of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and west of Petrified Forest National Park.

In Holbrook, the livelier of the pair, stay comfortably at the 63-room Econo Lodge (928/524-1448), $49; 61-room Comfort Inn (928/524-6131), $64; or 70-room Best Western Arizonian Inn (928/524-2611), $70. Nearby is Jerry's Restaurant, which features a ham-steak dinner, $7.29. In Winslow, make it the 55-room Motel 6 (928/289-9581), $60; or the 46-room Super 8 (928/289-4606), $53. Falcon, the Family Restaurant, a longtime local favorite, is the place to eat. Try "Steak a la Mexicana," $7.99. Info: Holbrook (928/524-6558), Winslow (928/289-2434).

Navajo nation

Day two

Just 15 miles north of Holbrook, State Route 77 enters into the sprawling Navajo Reservation (or Navajo Nation, as it is also called), the border crossing noted by the rumble of the cattle guard beneath your tires. As if to emphasize the tribe's open-range policy, cattle graze beside the highway, their swishing tails in danger of being whacked by the fender of your Ford. Today's drive covers just 125 miles via State Routes 77 and 15 and U.S. 191 en route to the town of Chinle and the nearby Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Give yourself plenty of time at the canyon.

Almost immediately, you'll be captivated by the views, which in this open country seem to stretch forever. Far to the west, a thunderstorm flashes across a flat-topped mesa. Just ahead, strange black cones thrust from a field of sagebrush, geological formations like incipient volcanoes that fizzled centuries ago. My wife and I pointed out the hogans we saw along the road. Often, younger Navajos live nearby in modern houses equipped with electricity and plumbing; their parents or grandparents favor the old ways.

About 30 miles from Chinle, take the five-mile detour to Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. Opened in 1878, it's the oldest continually operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The main trading area, selling groceries, looks as if it has changed little in 124 years. In the adjacent rug room, browse through stacks of handwoven rugs, noting the variety of traditional designs. The little ones begin at about $95; many larger rugs are priced at $4,500 or more. (Don't worry; down the road, I'll show you cheaper crafts that make fine souvenirs or gifts.) In the visitors center, Mary H. Begay, adorned in tribal jewelry of silver and turquoise, demonstrates the weaver's art, fashioning a rug in the style of the Teec Nos Pos community in New Mexico.

In the 1840s, Canyon de Chelly, stretching 26 miles in a maze of passageways, served the Navajo as a stronghold, and the tribe remains protective of it. To enter, you must go with a paid Navajo guide or on an escorted tour-although there is one exception. Most visitors hop aboard one of the tourist trucks outfitted with open-air seats. The truck plows along the sandy road winding beneath the canyon's narrow, 1,000-foot-high red stone walls. A half-day excursion costs about $50 per person.

To avoid paying, take the north- or south-rim drives and peer into the canyon from above. You'll be quite satisfied, I promise. The best overlook is at Tsegi on the south rim, which offers an extended view up and down the canyon. Far below, a farmer tends his vegetable garden, and here and there a cow wades in shallow Chinle Wash. I spotted one of those tourist trucks bouncing past in a cloud of dust. To get into the canyon, head for nearby White House Overlook. A 2.5-mile (round-trip) trail descends to the canyon floor, where you can see the White House cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi, who preceded the Navajo here. It's the one descent into the canyon for which you don't need a guide.

Chinle's three motels, all inviting, happen to be some of the most expensive on this trip: the 102-room Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn (800/327-0354), $89; 108-room Holiday Inn (928/674-5000), $99 to $109; and 73-room Thunderbird Lodge (928/674-5841), $101. The Thunderbird cafeteria, a favorite of Navajo families, serves a terrific sirloin-steak plate for under $10. Or stay about 20 minutes north at the 15-room Many Farms Inn (928/781-6362), a school training Navajo youth for hotel careers. A twin-bed room with shared bath costs $30 a night. Contact Navajo information (928/871-6436, discovernavajo.com).

Day three

Next stop is Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, another red-rock wonder, about 100 miles northwest of Chinle. If you caught John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on the late-night movie, you'll recognize giant Elephant Butte, John Ford Point, and other odd rock formations rising from the valley floor like modernistic sculptures. To get there, take U.S. 191 to Many Farms, State Route 59 and U.S. 160 to Kayenta, and U.S. 163 to Monument Valley. Admission is $5 per person.

For another $25 each, join a Navajo-led van tour, which makes a 17-mile, 90-minute loop through the valley (tours leave from the visitors center). But at no extra cost, tackle the rough, rutted road in your own car-always keeping an eye alert to wandering sheep. On the van tour, which I recommend, the guide provides insights into Navajo life, noting that the valley is sacred to the tribe. He even introduced us to a Navajo woman who invited us into her hogan, furnished in lovely rugs.

The closest affordable lodging is in Kayenta, about 25 miles south. Choices are the 54-room Best Western Wetherill Inn (928/697-3231), $108; and the 73-room Hampton Inn (928/697-3170), $89 to $109. At the Wagon Wheel Restaurant, I couldn't resist the "Navajo Burger," two patties on fry bread with beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and french fries-a full dinner at $8.95. Drive seven miles south to Tsegi and stay more cheaply at the 58-room Anasazi Inn (928/697-3793), $69. Perched on the edge of a gorge, it boasts great views. In Tuba City, 70 miles south, you'll find three more options: 15-room Dine Inn Motel (928/283-6107), $70; 80-room Quality Inn (928/283-4545), $88; and 32-room Grey Hills Inn (928/283-4450), another hotel training school; with shared bath, $52.

Day four

Surrounded by the Navajo Nation, the little Hopi Reservation preserves a culture that in many ways is different from the Navajos. For one thing, the Hopis shun irrigation for dry farming, instead nurturing crops that can survive on rainfall. Unfortunately, as is the nature of peoples everywhere, the two neighbors have squabbled for generations over land and other issues. You will get hints of the dispute in tribal newspapers found in shops, gas stations, and cafes.

Most Hopis live in 12 villages on or near First, Second, and Third Mesas, three huge rocks shooting up from the valley. From Tuba City, eastbound State Route 264 crosses (in succession) Third and Second Mesas and nudges up against First Mesa. Today's drive, about 130 miles, cuts through Hopi lands on routes 264, 77, and 87, returning you for the night to Holbrook or Winslow.

Atop Second Mesa, stop at the Hopi Cultural Center, where a small museum details the tribe's history. Check here about ceremonial dances open to the public. Next door is the reservation's only tourist lodging, the 33-room Hopi Cultural Center Motel (928/734-2401), $90 weekdays, $95 weekends. At the restaurant, I bought a $1.95 package of "piki bread," a flaky, Hopi-style tortilla made of blue corn and baked on a hot stone.

Save plenty of time to explore the village of Walpi, high atop First Mesa. Daily 45-minute walking tours ($5) depart frequently from the Ponsi Hall Cultural Center (928/737-2262). Loretta, our guide, explained that the steep road we had just negotiated was built only a few years ago, easing life for the mesa's 200 residents. Most live in two adjoining villages; only five families remain in Walpi, which dates back to 1690. Unlike its neighbors, Walpi lacks running water and electricity. Former residents, living on the valley floor, return on ceremonial occasions.

A number of artisans, young and old, sell kachinas and pottery from their homes, usually for considerably less than you would pay off-reservation. We noted their old negotiating tactic of offering one price only to immediately lower it if we didn't seem interested. In this way, my wife paid $50 for a brightly painted Crow Mother kachina, which featured a small image of Walpi. "You can't take photos of the village," said artist Jolie Silas, "so I carve it into my dolls." The best buy, though, is a "cradle" doll, a small kachina traditionally given to newborn girls. At $10 (you may have to bargain), they make a memorable souvenir. Hopi information: 928/734-2401, hopi.nsn.us. Day FIVe: Return to Phoenix, perhaps through Petrified Forest National Park or the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. From Holbrook, take State Routes 77 and 73 south through Fort Apache, connecting to U.S. 60 into Phoenix, about 200 miles. Keep in mind as you drive that Arizona is home to 21 Indian reservations or communities. They might tempt you back on another journey into Native American cultures. Arizona information: 888/520-3434, arizonaguide.com.

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